Gun Review: Magnum Research IWI Desert Eagle Mark XIX .50AE

If you’re looking to snag a Desert Eagle for your firearms collection, there are a couple of things you need to know. You’re going to need a bigger handgun safe; the Desert Eagle isn’t just a large pistol, it’s a hand howitzer. If you want to shoot your new cannon on a regular basis you’ll need a trust fund or a second job. Quality 50AE ammo costs from $1.50 to $2.50 a shot, which is cheap for old bourbon but pricy for ammo. Last but not least, if you haven’t personally shot a Desert Eagle, throw out everything you’ve heard about the gun. Read this first . . .

Deagles were originally made in Israel by Israel Weapon Industries, part of Israel Military Industries, Ltd., the same people who brought the Galil and the Uzi into the world. Magnum Research, the U.S. patent holder, subsequently transferred manufacture to the United States. A few years later, production of the Desert Eagle was returned to Israel. IMI then spun off IWI. Finally, Kahr Arms acquired Magnum Research in the middle of 2010. Thus, the poor Desert Eagle has gone through more hands than the Kardashians.

My test subject is an Israeli-made pistol manufactured by IWI, which is as close to an original Mark XIX as it gets.

How Does It Operate?
The Deagle is not recoil-operated like the locked breach and blowback designs that pistol shooters know and love. The Desert Eagle is gas operated, like grandpappy Mikhail’s AK-47. Being gas operated, the pistol’s barrel can be fixed in position like a rifle barrel. The barrel’s also different on the inside. It lacks lands and grooves, boasting instead six-rib polygonal rifling like medium-bore Glock pistols.

There’s a small gas valve under the barrel. Upon firing, the valve diverts propellant gasses to a piston that drives the slide back. As the slide begins its rearward travel, the rotating bolt unlocks from the barrel and moves with the slide. Toward the end of slide travel, the hammer gets cocked.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the spent brass is ejected, a new round the size of a cocktail weenie is crammed into the chamber and the twin recoil springs ram the slide forward. The bolt rotates until its three heavy lugs reengage the barrel and lock into position, and the gun is ready once again to rock and roll.

Okay, it sounds like the Desert Eagle is some kind of Frankengun cobbled together by Eugene Stoner and Mikhail Kalashnikov one night after they sucked down way too many Jell-O shots. Realistically, though, the intricate inner workings of any traditional short-recoil pistol are just as mysterious and spooky, and altogether ooky. Therefore, if any additional complexity of the Desert Eagle yields significant advantages, it’s all good. So does it?

In theory, yes.

Polygonal rifling is thought by some to create a tighter seal than lands and grooves. By some accounts, it reduces the potential for barrel fouling. Polygonal rifling has been around since the dawn of rifled firearms, so it’s not exactly unproven technology. Besides, if Gaston Glock chose polygonal rifling for America’s gun, how can we mere mortals object to the same for Israel’s gun?

The fixed barrel is also a plus. If fixed barrels are good enough for rifles and revolvers, there no reason why they can’t be good enough for pistols. A barrel that stays on the same plane as the frame at all times, instead of one that cams upward with every shot, should improve accuracy. The setup is very sturdy, too; a requirement for a pistol firing heavy magnum loads. Check off another potential plus or two for the Deagle.

Redirecting the propellant gasses into the gas valve probably reduces recoil, at least by a little. The effect is similar to that of a small muzzle break, except that the gas valve technology incorporated into the Desert Eagle does nothing to directly counter muzzle rise. Still, a little improvement is better than none.

Finally, the rotating, triple-lugged bolt offers dual advantages in safety and durability, especially when firing the powerful .50AE round. Anyway, those are the theories.

In contrast to the theories, there are the rumors. According to every blogger’s best friend (“reliable sources”) the Desert Eagle is a piece of junk. Most of the rumors center around cycling issues. Purportedly, quality went into the crapper about the time that production was switched stateside from the land of Canaan. Thereafter, the Desert Eagle rapidly developed a reputation as an unreliable problem pistol that jammed more than a Dixieland jazz quartet.

But rumors need to be taken with a whole Jimmy Buffet shaker of salt, especially when it comes to firearms. Let’s face it, the gun culture community is a lot like a suburban middle school. Information rolls off the desks like Tic-Tacs, disappearing into cracks and corners never to be seen again, while rumors travel fast and last forever. Which doesn’t account for the irrefutable fact that while many rumors are utterly false, others are absolutely true.

To put theory and rumors to the test, I headed off to the range carrying the Desert Eagle and several boxes of ammo that collectively cost about as much as a new Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver.

Handling and Shooting the Desert Eagle

The .50AE pistol is a hefty 4.5 pounds, about as much as two fully loaded 1911s plus a six-inch Subway sandwich. The big bazooka is 10.75” long from stem to stern and 6.25” high. The bore axis is a good 1.5” above the bottom of the long beavertail and it’s very muzzle-heavy. To accommodate such big rounds, the handle needs to be extremely thick. Achieving a good grip is a bit of a “challenge.”

With this much mass and such epic proportions, you don’t handle this gun; you wrangle it. And that’s before the shooting starts. As for portability, I personally wouldn’t want to tuck this monstrosity into my Thunderwear for a trip to the Piggly-Wiggly but your chafing may vary. [ED: Louisville Leathers is developing a Desert Eagle holster for Ralph’s dining and dancing pleasure. Stay tuned.]

Touring the landscape of the pistol, I immediately loved the patridge sights. Employing the old saw of “equal height, equal light,” I found it easy to put these sights right on target while dry-firing. Overall fit and finish seemed perfect, with the entire gun feeling like one solid piece. Field stripping and reassembly was a no-tool breeze.

The ambidextrous safety was very stiff and required a firm push of the thumb to move up to the fire position or down to the safe position. The hammer cocked and de-cocked more easily than I expected. Racking the slide was tough, requiring a tight grip and a 2.75” long pull against the powerful gang of recoil springs. The magazine release button likewise required a decisive push before it would give up its chokehold on the mag.

While working with spring-loaded hand grips would be a cheaper way to develop forearm strength, racking the slide and working the controls of the Deagle will likewise turn the average Joe into Popeye with none of that messy spinach.

Loading up the magazine was easy. The big cartridges provided plenty of leverage, and the magazine spring wasn’t fighting me like the controls had done. Magazine insertion required a degree of force. Once inserted, it seemed like the magazine fit a bit loosely in the well, but that’s the way it’s supposed to fit. According to the manual, any attempt to stifle that little bit of mag movement would result in a jam. When the manual says, “don’t do that,” then I don’t do that.

My first shot was a “ranging shot” to get the feel of the pistol and locate its true point of impact relative to point of aim. I used my preferred Weaver stance with my dominant arm fully bent at the elbow. The reason I bend the elbow is to shorten the distance between the front sight and my ancient eyes. That has the unfortunate effect of also shortening the distance between the recoiling mass of metal and my coconut. With .45s, .44 magnums or anything less, the recoiling handgun’s proximity to my noggin is a non-issue. Not so with .50 magnums. Recoil with this pistol is prodigious.

Here’s a viddy of Eddie shooting the Deagle. He’s a very powerful guy; watch the pistol jump around in his hand like an angry snake as his fires a miniscule group. I was subsequently to best that group by placing five shots touching in the same little outline.

Back to my initial firing experience. My first shot was on target, but the pistol overwhelmed my stance. The recoil forced my arm to pivot at the elbow, like a football referee signaling a first down. That pushed the pistol unreasonably close to my face, which is an organ that I prefer to leave just the way it is.

I found that the big sights were easy to see, even at full arm’s length, so I didn’t need to shorten up the focal distance between the front sight and my eyes. The long sight radius of 8.65” also made for accurate sighting. My second shot was fired from a Chapman-style stance with the dominant arm straight out and the elbow almost locked. It’s not my normal style, but it worked very well, reducing muzzle rise and improving my follow-through.

I normally prefer to test self-defense handguns at self-defense distances, meaning five to seven yards. It was quickly apparent that testing the Desert Eagle at such a distance was the equivalent of testing a sniper rifle at snowball distance. I loaded four, moved the target out to fifteen yards and proceeded to drill the bullseye, effortlessly.

Why not 25 yards? Because indoor range lighting is no friend of mine, that’s why. But it is my firm opinion that offhand shots at 25 yards and far, far beyond would be child’s play with this pistol at an outdoor range bathed in even moderate sunlight.

I shot a couple of boxes of ammo with no jams or any other stoppages whatsoever. Six or seven other people, selected at random from the crowd at the range, also fired the pistol. The shooters ranged from trainers like Eddie to experienced gunsels to near-noobs. The purpose of sharing the pistol with others was to make the pistol jam. But voila, there were no failures, period. I was beginning to think that the whole jam-o-matic business was so much bushwah.

But hosanna, one of the range instructors did have two jams while firing a magazine-full. It did not appear that he was limp-wristing, but he was shooting from a Weaver stance and permitting the pistol to roll up with each shot. Well, Deagle don’t like roll-ups, and it got to jamming right away to show its distaste for the shooter’s style. That shooter never did manage to dial-in his presentation, but subsequent shots by other operators went off without a hitch.

We went through a lot of expensive ammo trying to get this pistol to sh!t the bed. For all our efforts, all we got were those two lousy jams. So this is what can be said about this particular specimen, if not all its siblings out there: the pistol will do its job if the shooter does his or her job. However, this gun doesn’t make it easy for the shooter to do his or her job. Far from it. Any defects in stance or grip will be penalized. That’s not a good thing.

A great pistol should assist the shooter by being accurate, safe and easy to shoot well. The Desert Eagle is dead-nuts accurate shot offhand, and probably scary accurate if shot from sandbags, vise or rest. Most models are drop-safe, so the gun is just as all-around safe as other single action autoloaders.  But when it comes to helping the shooter to shoot well, the Deagle doesn’t give an inch. Therefore, it’s not a great pistol.

Conclusion

The Desert Eagle is a powerful.50 caliber pistol that is capable of producing muzzle velocities exceeding 1900 fps and muzzle energy of 2800 ft-lbs. To put those numbers in perspective, .50AE bullets can travel twice as fast as.45s and hit with the force of a .308 Winchester.

The Desert Eagle is also challenging to shoot. Marksmen who master it will be rewarded with a fun experience. Those who don’t master it will find that it jams. When it comes to jams I prefer Smucker’s over pistols, but that’s just me.

I’m not really sure why anyone would want a Desert Eagle. Punching holes in engine blocks comes to mind, but how often would someone really need to do that? Maybe once or twice a month, tops. Target practice? Ixnay. Not at two bucks a round. Self defense? Any handgun from .38Spl to .45 caliber would be a far better choice. Surviving the zombie apocalypse? A .22 would do just as well. Taking out Neo? Agent Smith had his Deagle. Neo had guns. Lots of guns. Neo won.

No, I have to say that the Desert Eagle is simply the most useless gun ever made. Paradoxically, it’s also, maybe, the most fun gun around, at least in .50AE. If I was rating the Desert Eagle’s fun factor using TTAG’s star system, the gun would get more stars than Hollywood.

So what makes the Desert Eagle a not-so-obscure object of desire? Maybe it’s the fun, maybe the glamour, or maybe it’s the excitement of hanging out with a movie star. It might be the power. While it’s not the biggest hitter out there, the fifty is definitely near the top.

Frankly, I don’t really know what it is about the Desert Eagle that makes it so intriguing, but I’m jonesing to shoot this one some more. I’m jonesing bad.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Desert Eagle Mark XIX
Caliber: .50AE
Magazine capacity: 7 rounds
Materials: Steel
Weight empty: 72.4 ounces
Barrel Length: 6.0″
Overall length: 10.75″
Sights: Dovetailed front and rear “combat-style,” windage adjustable
Action: Hammer fired, single action
Finish: Matte black
Price: around $1500

RATINGS (out of five stars)

Style * * * * *
Love the look or hate the look, the Desert Eagle’s been photographed more often than Paris Hilton and featured in more movies than Ron Jeremy. It’s an icon. I mean the gun. Not Ron Jeremy.

Ergonomics (carry) *
On a scale of zero to five, with five being an Airlight and zero being a flaming porcupine, the Desert Eagle is a one. On a scale where anything short of a flaming porcupine is a zero, the Desert Eagle is a zero.

Ergonomics (firing) * * *
Try a little experiment. Take all the guns out of your gun safe. Now hold the safe straight out at shoulder level with one arm. Comfy? If it is, then you’ll like hefting the Deagle. As heavy as the gun may be, the single-action trigger is light and precise. The trigger pull is smooth, with a short, nice ‘n’ easy take up. Reset is faster than most DA pistols in lesser chamberings, which is irrelevant since accurate follow-up shots will be slower than erosion. The sights are very good and the long sight radius makes for accuracy. One-handed shooting is something best reserved for a scene in Jackass 4.0.

Reliability * * *
It’s not a jam machine, but it can jam. A grip that would be firm enough for any other pistol might be too limp for the Desert Eagle. Oddly enough, habitual snubby shooters who have practiced a “convulsive grip” (trying to crush the handle into powder) will have no limp-wristing jams with this pistol. Keeping the gas valve clean is imperative to assure proper functioning. Field stripping is so easy even a cave man can do it, so there’s no excuse for not cleaning this big noisemaker. Long term durability is difficult to assess based on just a few range sessions, but any gun this heavily built should have a longer half-life than Uranium-234.

Customize This * * *
If the gun isn’t heavy enough for you just the way it is, there’s that long rail atop the barrel where one might mount a light, scope, a set of toy trains or an electric hoist. The .50AE Desert Eagle is also convertible for shooting .44Mag and .357Mag cartridges simply by purchasing expensive drop-in replacement gear that requires no gunsmithing to install. Why anyone would want to fire mere .357s from a gun this heavy and unwieldy is beyond me.

OVERALL RATING * * *
Shooting a Desert Eagle is like taking a honeymoon in Las Vegas. There’s no justification for it, except for having a raucous good time and burning through all those cash wedding gifts when your spouse isn’t looking.